Karel Čapek

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Karel apek was essentially a thinker who used a variety of forms to express his philosophical and political ruminations. Aside from his dramatic writing, apek’s work falls into three categories: political and philosophical writing, tales, and novels. Among his political and philosophical publications are Pragmatismus (1918), a direct outgrowth of work he did in his doctoral program at Charles University. This was followed in 1920-1921 by Musaion, a collection of essays on modern art, in part an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation, “Objective Methods in Aesthetics.” In 1928, apek published the first of the three volumes of Hovory s T. G. Masarykem (President Masaryk Tells His Story, 1934; also as Masaryk on Thought and Life, 1938). This extensive work, completed in 1935, grew out of apek’s close friendship with his former university professor, Tomas G. Masaryk, who served as Czechoslovakia’s president from 1918 until 1935. Out of this same period appeared a closely related collection of essays, O vcech obecných: ili, Zóon politikon (on public matters), published in 1932. A posthumous collection of essays Veci kolemnás (the things around us) was published in 1954.

apek, sometimes in collaboration with his brother Josef, liked to write tales and sketches, often of the fantastic. Many of these tales and sketches were collected and published, beginning with Záivé hlubiny (1916; The Luminous Depths, 1916), Bozí muka (1917; wayside crosses), and Krakonoova zahrada (1918; the garden of Krakono)—all these pieces written with Josef. In 1929, apek published on his own two collections of tales, Povídky z jedné kapsy (tales from one pocket) and Povídky z druhé kapsy (tales from the other pocket), translated into English and published together as Tales from Two Pockets in 1932.

apek’s novels combine political philosophy with a strong sense of the fantastic. The first, Továrna na absolutno, appeared in 1922 and is variously known in English as The Absolute at Large (1927), Factory for the Absolute, and Manufacture of the Absolute. apek then began the ambitious project of writing a trilogy that consisted of Hordubal (1933; English translation, 1934), Povtroó (1934; Meteor, 1935), and Obyejný ivot (1934; An Ordinary Life, 1936). These three novels, coming just as Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy in Germany was being noted widely, led to apek’s fifth novel, Válka s mloky (1936; The War with the Newts, 1937), which was openly anti-Fascist and specifically anti-Hitler. První parta (1937; The First Rescue Party, 1939) continued to develop the political philosophies found in the early novels.

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Karel apek is remembered today for his popularization of the word “robot,” actually first used by his brother Josef in his short story “Opilec” (1917) and used by Karel in R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, which was first produced in Prague in January, 1921. The word is from the Czech robota, meaning compulsory service or work. Popularizing this word, however, was certainly not apek’s most notable professional achievement. A deeply philosophical man, professionally trained as a philosopher, apek was the first Czech writer to attract a broad international audience for his works, particularly for his expressionist drama, which has been translated into many languages and has been performed all over the world.

A versatile intellectual, apek, during his years on the staff of Lidové noviny, the most influential Czech newspaper, demonstrated by the excellence of his writing that journalism can be an art. He wrote on a broad range of subjects, from Persian rugs to gardening to drama and art. apek was also an incisive political thinker who wrote stirring political essays, but his political sentiments achieve a more universal expression in his plays and novels, particularly in such plays as R.U.R., The Insect Play, and Power and Glory and...

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in the novels of his trilogy comprisingHordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. His novel most familiar to English-speaking audiences is The War with the Newts, which builds directly on much of the social criticism found in R.U.R. and in The Insect Play and which presents one of the earliest direct literary attacks on Hitler. His trilogy has attracted considerable interest for its manner of dealing with the infinite diversity of the human personality.

apek, who was deeply involved in the arts and in the cultural life of Prague, served from 1921 to 1923 as director of Prague’s City Theatre, where he directed thirteen plays. He was less comfortable as a playwright than he was as a journalist or a novelist because he believed that in drama the author has too little control over his own product: The actors and the director, by imposing their own interpretations on a play, wrest from it much of the authorial control that writers in other genres are able to preserve. It was perhaps this feeling that led him to directing for a short period of time.

apek’s own plays show a concern with the man in the street, with the face in the crowd. He was a champion of such people, and he wrote allegorically, particularly in R.U.R. and The Insect Play, about the relationship of such people to a modern, mechanized society. The Insect Play is particularly medieval in its conception, with each figure in the play representing some vice or virtue, clearly defined and unilaterally depicted. In a sense, this play was a prelude to the more fully expanded consideration of human personality that one finds in his later trilogy.

apek often wrote parody in his early work, attacking conventions indirectly but forcefully, taking the particular and turning it into an allegorical generalization, as he did even in his earliest play, Lásky hra osudná (the fateful game of love), written in collaboration with his brother, Josef, in 1910, though not staged until a decade and a half later, when a small company in Prague gave it a limited run. It was not given a professional performance until it was presented by Prague’s National Theatre in 1930 along with a number of other short dramatic works by a variety of Czech playwrights.

apek, although not philosophically comfortable with the subjectivism of expressionism, used many of the conventions of expressionist drama in his writing. His staging was often expressionistic, as was his use of characters who performed like overgrown puppets, particularly the automatons of R.U.R. He also departed with considerable dexterity from his philosophical stance that literature should report on the basis of objective, virtually scientific observation rather than be subjective. Although he was a deliberate and indefatigable observer, as is made clear in his essays, he could not exclude from his writing the fruits of his own careful introspection.

From the time that Czechoslovakia was established as a separate political entity by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, apek worked continually for the democratization of the country. Much influenced by Western culture, particularly that of France and England, apek believed firmly in representative government. His political views were much influenced by his extensive study of the pragmatism of William James during his days as a doctoral student at Charles University in Prague.

His close and early friendship with Tomas G. Masaryk grew steadily throughout apek’s lifetime, and when Masaryk rose to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, he and apek were in weekly contact with each other. Through Masaryk, apek became an informal force in Czech politics and government. His political influence persisted until the end of his life, which was clearly shortened by his deep distress about Hitler’s rise to power. It is speculated that apek’s attack on Hitler in The War with the Newts was responsible for his not being awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, for in the mid-1930’s, Sweden was still trying to appease Hitler and was quite unwilling, presumably, to bring to Stockholm to receive the world’s highest award in literature someone who had taken a political stand against the German tyrant.

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Karel apek, who earned his living as a journalist, is best known for his futuristic drama, R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (with Josef apek, 1921; English translation, 1923), which brought into the language the word “robot,” coined by his brother Josef. Besides his collections of short stories, apek published seven novels and a book of travel sketches. Six of his plays were produced.

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Karel apek, recognized as one of Czechoslovakia’s leading literary figures, is remembered for works of science fiction in which he expresses concern for the human race in a rapidly changing, increasingly technological society. Elected president of the PEN Club of Prague in 1925, apek chose not to serve, although a decade later he was persuaded to succeed H. G. Wells as president of the International PEN Club. Unable to attend his inauguration in Latin America, apek failed to assume office. apek was a serious contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937 and 1938. The Nobel Committee, however, fearful of offending German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, passed him over.

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Apart from long fiction, Karel apek (CHAH-pehk) wrote many stories, travelogues, and plays. An important journalist, he published many of his feuilletons as well as his conversations with T. G. Masaryk, then president of Czechoslovakia. He also published a book on philosophy, Pragmatismus (1918), and a book of literary criticism, Kritika slov (1920).

apek’s collections of short stories include Zárivé hlubiny (1916; with Josef apek); Bozí muka (1917; Wayside Crosses, 2002); Krakonoova zahrada (1918); Trapné povídky (1921; Money, and Other Stories, 1929; also known as Painful Tales, 2002); Povídky z druhé kapsy and Povídky z jedné kapsy (1929; Tales from Two Pockets, 1932); Devatero pohádek (1931; Fairy Tales, 1933); and Kniha apokryf (1946; Apocryphal Stories, 1949).

Among apek’s most important plays are R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (pb. 1920; with Josef apek; English translation, 1923); Ze ivota hmyzu (pb. 1920; with Josef apek; The Insect Play, 1923; also known as And So Infinitam: The Life of the Insects, 1923); VêcMakropulos (pb. 1920; The Macropulos Secret, 1925); Bílá nemoc (1937; Power and Glory, 1938; also known as The White Plague, 1988); and Matka (pr., pb., 1938; The Mother, 1939).

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Karel apek is among the best-known modern Czech writers. He became prominent between the two world wars and was recognized by and acquainted with such eminent figures as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, and Jules Romains. apek’s international reputation earned for him the presidency of the Czechoslovak PEN Club, and he was suggested for the post of president of the International PEN Club, an honor that he declined. Though he was equally versatile in fiction and drama, his fame abroad rests mostly on his science-fiction play R.U.R., written in collaboration with Josef apek, which introduced into the world vocabulary the Czech word robot, a neologism derived from the Czech robota, meaning forced labor.

Despite apek’s lifelong interest in science and its destructive potential, examined in such novels as The Absolute at Large and Krakatit, and despite the worldwide fame that such science fantasies brought him, he is remembered in the Czech Republic as a dedicated humanist, a spokesperson for the tolerance, pragmatism, and pluralism best manifested in the philosophy of relativism that his works so creatively demonstrate. He was one of the strongest voices of his time against totalitarianism, be it fascist or communist.

apek’s work is deeply philosophical, but in a manner that is accessible to a wide readership. He managed to achieve this with the help of a chatty, almost pedestrian style informed by a genuine belief in the reasonable person, one who is open to a rational argument when all else fails. Hence apek’s humanism; hence, also, his disappointment when, after the infamous appeasement of 1938, he had to acknowledge that the very paragons of the democratic ideal and of Western culture, England and France, had sold out his country to the Nazis.

Such concerns of apek as the conflict between humankind’s scientific achievements and the very survival of the human race—a conflict illustrated by the fight between the robots and human beings in R.U.R.—are not merely alive today but have become more and more pressing as the world is becoming increasingly aware of the threat of nuclear holocaust. apek was among the first to see the dangerous potential of humankind’s creative ability, not because he was particularly gifted in science, but because he was quite realistic, approaching the tendencies of his time with the far-seeing and far-reaching attitude of one whose relativism was tempered by pessimism derived from his awareness of the past, the tradition from which the imperfect-but-perfectible human departed.

An urbane wit, a certain intimacy with the reader, deft characterization, and concise expression are the hallmarks of apek’s style. This style heightens the impact of his fictional treatment of profound issues.

Bibliography

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Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. Karel apek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust. Portland, Oreg.: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. A critical reevaluation of apek’s work. Bradbrook discusses apek’s many intellectual interests, including his search for truth and his appreciation of science and technology. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. “Karel apek’s Contribution to Czech National Literature.” In Czechoslovakia Past and Present, edited by Miloslav Rechcigl. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1968. Clearly places apek high on the list of notable Czech authors, demonstrating how much his writing affected other literary production in the country as well as making a political impact. Remarks perceptively on apek’s inventiveness and on his ability to work in several genres.

Dolezel, Lubomir. Narrative Modes in Czech Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973. Advanced students should consult “Karel apek and Vladislav Vanura: An Essay in Comparative Stylistics.” Includes a bibliography.

Harkins, William E. Karel apek. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. This carefully researched and well-written critical biography of apek remains one of the best available full-length sources on the author.

Heé, Veronika. “The Pocket-Stories of Karel apek.” Studia Slavica 22, nos. 3/4 (1976): 401-411. Focuses on the means apek uses to convey his philosophical ideas through the detective stories included in Tales from Two Pockets. A good critical analysis of how these pieces succeed as detective stories while simultaneously reaching beyond that genre to shed light on more serious matters.

Klima, Ivan. Karel apek: Life and Work. Translated by Norma Comrada. Highland Park, Mich.: Catbird Press, 2002. Catbird Press, an American publisher of Czech literature in English translation, commissioned Klima, a Czech novelist and authority on apek, to write this critical biography. Klima analyzes apek’s work, relating its themes to events in the author’s life.

Kussi, Peter, ed. Toward the Radical Center: A Karel apek Reader. Highland Park, Mich.: Catbird Press, 1990. Kussi’s introduction to this collection of apek’s fiction, plays, and other work provides an excellent brief overview of apek’s career. Includes a chronology and a helpful list of English translations of apek’s writings.

Makin, Michael, and Jindrich Toman, eds. On Karel apek. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992. Collection of conference papers examining apek as a modern storyteller, his versions of dystopia, his early work, his short stories, and his reception in the United States.

Mann, Erika. “A Last Conversation with Karel apek.” The Nation, January 14, 1939. Although brief, this account by Thomas Mann’s daughter of her last meeting with apek comments on the pressures apek found building up all around him, causing him to undergo a physical decline that eventually led to his death. She senses and comments on apek’s sickness of the spirit that left him unwilling to continue living in the face of Adolf Hitler’s growing fanaticism and power.

Matuska, Alexander. Karel apek: An Essay. Translated by Cathryn Alan. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964. An excellent account of apek’s artistry. Discusses how he develops his themes, shapes his characterization, fashions his plots, and handles the details that underlie the structure of his work. This book remains a valuable resource.

Pynsent, R. B., ed. Karel Matel apek-Chod: Proceedings of a Symposium Held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies 18-20 September, 1984. London: The School, 1985. A collection of papers presented at a symposium on apek. Index.

Schubert, Peter Z. The Narratives of apek and Cexov: A Typological Comparison of the Authors’ World Views. Bethesda, Md.: International Scholars, 1997. Although a somewhat difficult work for beginning students, this book proves valuable with its discussion of the themes of freedom, lack of communication, justice, and truth. Includes a separate section discussing the critical views of apek. The comprehensive bibliography alone makes this a volume well worth consulting.

Wellek, René. Essays on Czech Literature. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1963. Wellek’s essay, “Karel apek,” which originally appeared in 1936, is one of the most searching pieces written about the author during his lifetime. Wellek comments on apek’s relative youth and considers him at the height of his powers. When these words were written, apek had less than three years to live.

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